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In this lesson, we’re going to learn about some critical themes from the first of eight sequential time periods in the Bible. We call this first period Before Israel because it focuses on the human timeline before the nation of Israel was officially formed. As we’ve been discussing in our previous lessons, to get the most out of the Bible, we need to understand the order in which things happened. Before we start this lesson, here are some stories and people you may have heard of which you should mentally shift into the very beginning of the Bible’s timeline:
SOME OF THE STORIES & FIGURES FROM THIS PERIOD
The Creation, the Fall (Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit), the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark, Abraham, the sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob & Esau, Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jacob wrestling with an angel, the rape of Dinah and her brothers’ revenge, Jacob being renamed Israel, the tower of Babel, the story of Job, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this period, even though we’re only dealing with two books.
THE RIGHTEOUS ARE FEW
If we jump far, far ahead to the second to last period of the Bible—Period 7—we will find Jesus saying these famous words:
“But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt. 7:14)
He’s talking about eternal salvation here, and salvation is obtained not through good deeds, but through reverential submission to our Makers. Under the current Covenant, there are three Gods which we must submit to: Yahweh, Jesus, and the magnificent Holy Spirit. But as we begin reading Genesis, there is only God being discussed: the glorious Yahweh. The book of Genesis was written by Moses: a man who believed that Yahweh was the supreme God. Moses has never heard of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. When he talks about God’s Spirit, he means Yahweh.
Now in real life, didn’t Jesus and the Holy Spirit also have a part in creating the universe? Of course They did. We have three glorious Creators and They do everything together. But the revelation of Jesus won’t come for thousands of years. Right now, it is only Yahweh who is being discussed, and that’s important to realize. In the Church, some Christian scholars work hard to argue that there is a clear mention of multiple Gods at work in the Creation account. No, there’s not. There’s only Yahweh (see Rethinking the Creation Account: Who is Elohim?).
Now the first two humans Yahweh created were Adam & Eve. These two weren’t born as babies, they were created as adults, and Yahweh placed them in a lush tropical paradise named Eden. In the Church today, you’re taught to view Adam and Eve as two innocent simpletons who just didn’t know anything about anything until some slick serpent came along and conned them into eating from a fruit tree that Yahweh had told them to stay away from. Well, that’s not what happened.
Like humans today, Adam and Eve were given some degree of choice. Right from the start, they had the capacity to choose to obey or disobey God. Disobedience wasn’t a foreign concept–instead, it seemed to have its advantages, just as it does to us today. And like us today, Adam and Eve chose to rebel against Yahweh many times. The famous fruit sampling that we hear about in church is often described as the first sin humans ever committed. Yet nowhere in the text does it say this was the first sin. Instead, Yahweh’s extreme reaction to the fruit sampling makes it clear that it was not the first time His humans had defied Him. It was more like the last straw (see Eden: Disturbing Revelations).
What we find in Genesis 3 is the account of two hardened rebels once again defying God’s Authority and bringing harsh discipline down on their heads. Read through this chapter and look for signs of repentance from the humans. There aren’t any. What you find is a shifting of blame and a denial of guilt. Adam even has the audacity to try and blame God for his rebellion.
Then the man replied, “The woman You gave me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:12)
Notice how Adam doesn’t just blame Eve–he makes a point to remind Yahweh that He is the One who came up with Eve in the first place. Adam is blaming both Eve and God for his rebellion, while neatly excusing himself. Eve then tries to pin her sin on the snake.
And the woman said, “It was the serpent. He deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:13)
We never hear of these two repenting, which is quite disturbing. After showcasing their attitude of hardcore defiance, the biblical record doesn’t give us any more insight about the personal dynamic between these first two humans and God. This leads us to wonder where the first two humans ended up on the other side. Are Adam and Eve in Hell? It’s a disturbing thought.
Now while we’re never given any more information about the first couple’s heart attitudes towards God, we are told that they go on to have two sons: Cain and Abel. In this second generation of humans, we see a 50/50 split: Abel chooses to honor God while Cain chooses rebellion. When Yahweh expresses His approval of Abel and His disapproval of Cain, Cain responds by murdering his brother. Thus begins a shocking pattern of rebellious humans aggressively trying to exterminate those who honor God.
Now after Abel’s death, Adam has a third son, Seth. Seth chooses righteousness. The pace of our story then accelerates, leaping forward by hundreds of years while keeping us focused on the descendants of good Seth and his evil brother Cain. We quickly notice a pattern: each man’s descendants follow after his spiritual model. Cain’s descendants choose rebellion, while Seth’s choose to honor God. And then the fateful day comes when the two lines blend together as righteous men let their lust overtake them and marry women from Cain’s rebellious line. What happens when good and evil come together? We already know the answer from the story of Cain and Abel: evil wins.
So then, Genesis starts off with two hardened rebels exasperating God in Eden, and then we watch evil grow exponentially after that until we come to Chapter 6.
Then Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. Yahweh was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. (Gen. 6:5-6)
Well, this is depressing. It seems like Project Earth was a big fat failure. When God decides to wash everyone away in an epic flood, it makes sense to us. But what doesn’t make sense is the fact that God decides He’s not quite ready to give up on people yet. Why not, when they’re all a bunch of rebellious creeps? Because there is still one man left on the planet who sincerely cares about honoring God. But so what? Why go through all the harassment of building a huge ark, preserving nature, and then putting up with more defiant people over the sake of one tiny dot of a human? It’s here in Genesis that we begin to realize our Creator does not think like a human.
When we look at Noah, we don’t see anything to get so excited about. The entire human race is spitting in God’s face—how can one individual possibly matter in the face of all that defiance? It is in the story of the Flood that we get our first shocking demonstration of how much it means to God when we sincerely seek Him. Instead of washing Noah away with the rest of the evil, God sets him apart and uses him to start a whole new world.
When Noah and his family step off of the ark onto dry land, an empty planet awaits them. There is a desperate need to repopulate. At least with Noah showing such loyalty to God, we feel like things are off to a better start then they were with Adam. Noah has three sons: Ham, Shem, and Japheth. Yet once again we see a family divided as Ham’s actions reveal a heart that is embracing evil. As a result, Noah curses Ham and his descendants, and as the planet is repopulated, we wonder if we’re doomed to once again speed towards worldwide corruption.
It doesn’t take long before the human race is once again swamped in evil. Yahweh had told them to spread out over the earth as they multiplied, but instead we find them grouped together and building a massive structure named the tower of Babel. This displeases God, for where wicked people gather together, their moral corruption accelerates. To force people to spread out and hinder their ability to unify, God strikes the people so that they suddenly find themselves all speaking different languages. What a chaotic moment that must have been. Imagine if God suddenly changed your native tongue from English to Swahili. Suddenly you don’t understand anyone around you and they don’t understand you. All you can do is search for fellow Swahili speakers, and when you find them, you’ll naturally want to go off somewhere together and get away from the chaos. This is what happens after Babel: the people spread out and the idea of world unity goes out the window.
The scattering of language isn’t the only curbing effect Yahweh comes up with. Before the Flood, people lived hundreds of years at a time. As humans became increasingly evil, God decided to limit their lifespan to a mere 120 years. We don’t see the effects of that decision showing until after the Flood, when Noah’s descendants are reported as dying at younger and younger ages. In the world today, most of us don’t make it to 120. God’s age cap is still in effect, and it’s in the book of Genesis that we gain an understanding of why we die so young.
On this earth, the wicked will always outnumber the righteous. From the very beginning, the human race has always favored rebellion over obedience and this will never change. Yahweh will groan about it in the Old Testament. Jesus will be exasperated by it in the Gospels, and the apostles will try in vain to reverse this problem in the early Church. Yet no matter how hard the righteous fight, they will always be in the minority. If we stop here, we can start feeling quite depressed. In a world that worships numbers, it’s hard to feel like you’re winning the fight when the odds are so in favor of evil. But God doesn’t teach us about the prevalence of evil in the Bible just so we can feel hopeless and give up. Instead, He urges us to press on and He demonstrates over and over again that when we are aligned with Him in our hearts, numbers don’t matter at all. As the story of Noah demonstrates, one is always enough when that one is following God.
At this point in our journey, the biblical lens suddenly zooms in. Pulling our attention away from the general human race, it focuses us on a man named Abraham who responds to God’s calling on his life. Just as Peter dropped everything to become a follower of Jesus, so also Abraham turns away from the idols his family worshiped to follow a God who he has a personal encounter with. And just as Jesus kept His followers on the move, Yahweh keeps instructing nomadic Abraham to keep packing up and moving closer to a specific patch of land that Yahweh has in mind. That land is called Canaan—and in our next time period, it will be referred to as the Promised Land by the Jews.
Like Noah, Abraham’s commitment to Yahweh is very sincere. In response to this, Yahweh shows Abraham great favor and He makes him some very grand promises. He tells Abraham that he will have many descendants, and that one day those descendants will possess the lush land of Canaan. It’s here in Genesis that we find a new theme introduced: that of God blessing generations of twerps for the sake of one righteous individual.
BLESSING MANY FOR THE SAKE OF THE FEW
When we get into Period 2, we’ll discover that Abraham’s descendants (the Jews) do not share his love for God at all. In fact, many of Abraham’s more immediate descendants give us nothing to admire. We know very little about his son Isaac, but we can’t help but notice that when God promises to bless Isaac, He says it is for Abraham’s sake. It is Abraham who pleased God with his sincere devotion. But for the most part Abraham’s sons, grandsons, and great grandsons don’t show much interest in the Lord. Hundreds of years later in Period 2, the Jewish nation as a whole will have a particularly foul attitude towards God. So foul that God considers destroying the whole lot of them. But in the end, He presses on, determined to keep the promises He made to one soul who greatly pleased Him.
In Period 4, we will see this pattern start again when God finds a new favorite: David. Once again, God will respond to one human’s sincere devotion by heaping on blessings and making grand promises. And once again, He will refuse to break those promises no matter how nasty He is treated by those who come after His devoted servant.
Many rebellious souls being blessed for the sake of an obedient few—this is a theme we find all throughout the Bible. And along with it, we find a challenge to rise up and become one of the few souls who richly bless God by fully committing our hearts to Him. It all starts back in Genesis, as we watch God’s response to Enoch (who He miraculously whisks off to Heaven), Noah, Abraham, and Joseph. Loyalty is a huge deal to God. When human hearts fully devote themselves to Him, His pleasure is so intense that many generations are impacted by it.
Imagine dropping a large rock into a quiet pool of water and then seeing all the ripples moving outward from that point. When we fully devote ourselves to God, a ripple effect begins which continues to reach out far beyond what we would ever imagine. At the time we decide to pursue God, we aren’t thinking about blessing the world or honoring God before angels and demons in the spiritual realm. Yet our eager response to God is so important to Him that He makes sure it does not go unnoticed. This is how the story of Job begins—with God boasting before the angels and Satan of His devoted servant on earth (see JOB: Lessons We’re Afraid to Learn). What follows is a grand test of Job’s devotion which Job passes with flying colors. And yet how can a normal man possibly withstand the terrible trials that Job experiences without turning his back on God? Because God strengthens His devoted ones, and protects their sincere desire for Him. God is faithful—and His faithfulness is of a much better caliber than we humans are capable of giving to each other.
INTRODUCING THE NEXT PERIOD
Every chapter in a good book drops hints about what’s coming in the next one. It’s the same way in the Bible: each time period we study drops hints about what will be coming next. In Genesis, we find God prophesying to Abraham that one day the current inhabitants of Canaan will become so terribly wicked that they will need to be completely annihilated. At that point, God will rescue the Jews from oppression in Egypt, gather them together as a nation, and use them as His Divine rod of discipline. It’s here in Genesis that we learn what God’s spiritual agenda is in commanding Israel to kill every man, woman, child and beast in the Promised Land. We learn that the Jews are going to be enslaved for a long period of time as God gives the Canaanites time to repent. It’s here in Genesis that we get our first clues that God is a Multitasker—always accomplishing many agendas at once, and always concerned with the spiritual state of mankind. We get a glimpse of how generous He is as we watch Him bless Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. We get a glimpse of His compassionate and tender side as He invents a rainbow to assure a traumatized Noah that the earth will never again be washed away. And we get a taste of how varied His prophetic style can be as He speaks plainly to Abraham and then gives metaphorical dreams to Joseph and the pharaoh of Egypt. We see Him demonstrate His complete control over national politics as He raises a Jewish prisoner (Joseph) to be the right arm of the Egyptian royalty.
THE THIRTEEN TRIBES OF ISRAEL
Abraham’s son Isaac has a son named Jacob. God renames Jacob Israel (see Jacob Wrestles with an Angel). Israel has twelve sons by four different women. When we talk about “the twelve tribes of Israel,” we’re referring to ethnic Jews who can trace their bloodlines back to one of Jacob’s twelve sons.
But in real life, there ends up being thirteen tribes, not twelve. You rarely hear about the tribe of Joseph because two of the tribes in Israel are actually named after Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (which would be Israel’s grandsons). By dropping Joseph and replacing him with his two sons, we actually bump the total number of tribes to thirteen.
So if there are really thirteen tribes, why does everyone talk about the twelve tribes of Israel? Well, one reason is that when the Jews finally reached the Promised Land, it was only divided up into twelve portions. The tribe of Levi didn’t get their own chunk of land—instead they were intentionally scattered throughout everyone else’s portions. Why was this? We’ll find out in Lesson 5. But first, we need to learn about how Israel became an official nation.
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 4: Yahweh Chooses Israel
Click here for all the lessons in this series.